He was aware, briefly, of the final pain as his heart failed him, but even before his heart stilled he was drawn up, away from his body, and he stood up and saw about him all watching the bier with grief and pain mirrored on their faces. He felt compassion for them, turned and looked down--somehow he stood above her--and saw Arwen leaning in great pain over an empty thing that lay upon a table on a pale cloth that they thought was red. He leaned down to caress her hair, and for a brief instant she looked up at him and saw him clearly; and he heard, deep in his own heart, You carry my heart with you, oh my Beloved. I am nothing without you--have been nothing without you--since we were wed.
He felt compassion for her, tried to speak his own message back, I will hold it for you, Lady, until you come to join me. But he could not be certain she heard him.
He could no longer fight the command he turn to the West, and afar he saw the way he must go, straighter than the Straight Path. A great Light was there, and he must go to it. Briefly he looked to them again, saw that several were aware of him, and that Glorfindel was smiling to honor him, and that Faramir Took’s mouth, so reminiscent of that of his father, trembled with a smile of wonder. He laughed with heart’s ease, turned to the West and gave himself to the Light, found himself speeding toward it, as if he went through a great tunnel.
As he went, he found he was being awaited. He found at one point his flight slowed as he looked down on four he had loved and one he knew only through the love of the others, and they offered their honor and recognition as he came near, and he paused briefly--he could not stay his flight long--to rejoice in them. He heard the prayer offered by his Adar, and grieved with him. Then he was back in the tunnel of Light, and at its end stood two figures, watching his coming with delight.
It’s him! Merry, it’s him at last!
Well, I must say it’s about time! He did take his leisure about the process, didn’t he, Pip?
What do you expect? Suspect Arwen was difficult about it at the end, you know. No, he’d have made sure he did it right.
What’s that he’s carrying with him? You’re not supposed to bring things with you.
Think about it, Merry. It would come ahead of her if he came first, you know.
But--what is she going to do without it?
Wait till she rejoins him, I suppose. Same with Frodo and Sam, if you will remember.
But Frodo wasn’t here then, and Sam brought it after.
No, he wasn’t, but the same process applies, I suspect.
And then he was coming nearer, slowing as he came before them, and the two figures bowed low before him. “Welcome, my Lord,” intoned one, reminiscent of a day long ago.
They were not as he remembered them--they were taller than Men, taller than Elves--yet he knew them at once. One appeared to be a tall, slender youth with auburn curls hanging unregarded about his face and shoulders, his slender face alive with merriment; the other an individual of authority, a look of joy and delight filling his features. Beyond them were two Ways, one to a great Edifice, the other to a Garden. He stood, a bit dazed, looking beyond them, then back to them, shaking his head. Was it his head? He appeared to have a form, as they did. He looked to the youth, and laughed. “Oh, Pippin! My shadow! You are--you are....” Words failed him, but he found the meaning was conveyed fully, and Pippin beamed at him. He looked to the other. “Meriadoc Brandybuck. Yes, I knew this was in you!”
Merry shone with laughter of delight. “While you, Aragorn, haven’t changed at all.”
Pippin snorted--if such a one could snort. “Well, if you can call being Estel and Strider and the Captain Thorongil and Aragorn and Elessar, King and father and lover and son all at the same time ‘unchanged’ I suppose you could say that.”
“Did you really order that our tombs be placed alongside yours?”
“I certainly did.”
Pippin laughed. “That will certainly give your Master of Protocol nightmares. Inside or outside the House of Kings?”
“Good. Never liked the Hall of Lords, you know. Too dreary.”
And they embraced.
Finally he asked, “Which way do I go?”
Merry shook his head. “It is your choice.”
“Will you go with me?”
Pippin answered, “We can take you to the door of the Edifice, or we can go with you into the Gardens and beyond. It is your choice.”
He wanted to go to the Gardens--oh how deeply he wished to go there--but he had duties to perform....
They accompanied him to the Doors to the Halls of Waiting, smiled as he turned from their company to enter in. We will await your coming forth.
The Doors opened and admitted him, and as he entered he heard familiar voices calling out, “Behold the King!” He was met by the three he had known as Stewards of Gondor, the Lords Ecthelion, Faramir, and Faramir’s son Elboron, who bowed before him, and three who had served as Stewards of Arnor under him; and behind them those who filled the Hall he’d entered bowed with them. He stopped in surprise, humbled, for the honor held by those he saw before him was what he had been taught all his life to revere--it was he who should bow before them, not the other way around, for this Hall was filled with the Lords and Ladies of Gondor and Arnor and before--his ancestors and predecessors, Stewards, Chieftains, Lords, Queens, Kings. He sought to bow himself, but was stopped by the hand of Ecthelion.
“No, you do not bow here--not this day. For you have restored honor to the lands we loved, restored dignity, restored justice and mercy. And you have sought counsel from all worthy to give it, great and small alike, respecting the wisdom and dignity of those under you, and teaching that this is the way of honor through your own example and rulings.
“You served under me, but always you served Gondor first, and me only because I represented Gondor before the world. And when I would have acclaimed you for your heritage, you stayed me, recognizing the time had not yet come. You have done well by the land I ruled in your name as well as that which you led before and after you came to me. And you have raised a worthy successor who will do well by all of Middle Earth.”
Aragorn felt the love he’d held for the man in life rise once more within him. “Your own example helped teach me how to rule, as well as the wisdom and skills of those who served under you.” He looked carefully around, then turned his eyes in unspoken question to the one he’d once addressed as Lord.
Ecthelion shook his head. “He still recovers from the damage to his spirit. He is not here in this chamber.”
Aragorn felt grief for Denethor, whom he’d admired as a fellow Captain of the Hosts of Gondor. Then he turned to Faramir and his son, and embraced both of them, his brothers in rule and love. And then he turned to the right, where his Uncle Halbeleg and cousins stood, Hardorn and Halbarad, Halladan and Gilfileg, Eregiel and Erevil and Merevin, rejoicing to at long last be reunited with them, embracing them with gladness. Then they parted to let him see others, and there were those who had led the troops of Arnor and Gondor, those he’d led and those he’d fought beside and those he’d fought under; and in the midst of them one tall form he delighted to see as he came forward to embrace and honor Boromir son of Denethor and brother to Faramir, whose own embrace filled him with the Light of Joy.
“Welcome, my Brother, my Captain, my King.” Boromir’s words filled his heart.
At last Boromir released him, and stepped aside, and he saw approaching him from the hosts of Eriador one he’d known only from the images shown him by those he’d called his brothers, and from the stories told him by those who remembered him: and as Arathorn son of Arador came forward to do honor to his son, Aragorn found a part of himself he’d not realized for years was missing filled in. Then he saw a woman approaching, grey and sad but brightening as she came closer, and as he embraced her and his father together, his mother’s years seemed to fall away. As he held her close he whispered, “Hope you gave to the Men of the West, and now, Naneth, may you receive it back again!” When at last they pulled from one another to look on one another’s Joy, he saw she was young and beautiful again, with no hint of sadness left to her, and she stood now proudly at the side of the one she’d known once as her husband as she must have done in the few years of her marriage.
He suddenly remembered thinking that this would be a time of greetings, and so it proved. Those he’d known and loved followed after, ushered him forward, deeper and deeper into the Hall, and now there were few he recognized--until he came upon Arvedui, last King of Arnor before him, who looked on him with pride. “You have done well by our lands and peoples, my son,” he greeted him. “Once again the wastelands will be fulfilled and cared for; and your people will honor those who lived and died to protect them.”
Opposite him stood Eärnil and Eärnur of Gondor. “Welcome, Elessar. The Renewer you have been for our lands as for the lands to which you were born. We rejoice that Arnor and Gondor are again joined together as they began.”
Deeper and deeper he went into the Hall, until he saw three approach him together, tall forms whose images he’d seen in the throne room of the Citadel of Minas Anor, in the ways of the city and on its gates, and also in the ruins of Osgiliath, Amon Sul, Annúminas, the Argonath, and elsewhere throughout the lands they’d once ruled together--Elendil the Tall and his sons, Isildur and Anárion. These, too, greeted him with honor. “Welcome, our Son. After years of division and strife you have united the free peoples of our lands. We give thanks that again our vision for Middle Earth has been fulfilled, and that the great Enemy of our times has at last been cast down.”
Isildur bowed before him. “You did what I could not, our Son. You refused to touch that which caught my heart and soul, and sent it to its destruction. You have renewed our heritage and cleansed it of strife.” Behind him his four sons bowed as well.
Further into the Hall they led him now, until he saw standing before a High Seat one he had seen no images of in his lifetime, but one whom he recognized because of his knowledge of that one's brother and the likeness to his own image he’d known--the Lord Elros Tar-Minyatur, founder of his line, who looked down on him with pride and indicated a Seat beside him. Aragorn looked at that Seat with wonder, and slowly approached it, looked again at his long-father, then turned to stand before it, and heard at last that great voice, so familiar and strange at once, proclaiming, “Behold the King!”
How long he’d sat in the Hall of his Fathers he had no idea, but at last he was aware of One of a different Light approaching him, and he looked on a being he recognized immediately in spite of the great difference in his appearance. The face was beardless, the eyes full of the Youth of Springtime and the Wisdom and Peace and Maturity of Winter, the mouth promising the Joy of Being. He bowed his head before the Maia Olórin and gave him greeting and honor, and stood to embrace him. “Gandalf, my friend and counselor, I saw you along the way, and had not hoped to see you again here.”
Olórin smiled. “I suppose I am a special case, for I, unlike most of my kind, have also known Death, and so am allowed to wander at times where the rest of my brethren cannot come. You did well, in your beginning, in your rule, and in your ending. Now I have been asked to come to you, to beg you to come forth if you will, for there are others who desire to greet you, and to be reunited with you.”
“But if this is the place appointed for my line...”
“My Child, you are free to remain or go as you please. You have entered this place as is right and proper; and now you are part of it, as is also right and proper. However, you are not required to keep all of your awareness here; and the two who wait outside the Door may well decide yet to while away their time of waiting by devising mischief to remind you of their strained patience. I believe Mandos is watching them warily, in fact. Also, if you remain fully here you will not be able to return that which you bear when the Time comes. Will you come forth?”
The joyous laughter of Aragorn filled the Hall as he stepped down to follow, once more, the Wizard.